ROME Italy coach Conor O'Shea fended off suggestions on Saturday that his team were out of their depth in the Six Nations and said the tournament's experiment with attacking bonus-points encouraged opponents to "go for the jugular" this year.
O'Shea, who took over as coach last year, has a long-term plan to turn Italy from perennial wooden-spooners into a force to be reckoned with, but his first two home Six Nations outings have been heavy defeats against opponents hungry for a bonus point.
Wales tried and failed last weekend to secure a four-try bonus point but Ireland made no mistake on Saturday, scoring nine tries to record their biggest ever Six Nations victory, 63-10.
"One of the main things we have to change is the (level of) respect that teams have for us because mentally teams come with an expectation of winning and play with a different level of freedom, which is anathema for any sports person," he said.
The Six Nations is trialling the bonus-points system for the first time this year, awarding one for scoring four tries and one for losing by seven points or fewer.
Teams view Italy, who have come last in all but six of the past 17 tournaments, as their best chance of claiming an attacking bonus point and are not only intent on beating them this year, but are seemingly bent on putting them to the sword.
The stakes could be higher for Italy, if Six Nations organisers were ever to entertain the suggestion from some rugby officials that the tournament should adopt a relegation-promotion system.
Georgia, now placed above Italy in the world rugby rankings, and Romania have been pushing to be included in Europe's prestigious tournament and former World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset called last year for a relegation-promotion system.
Six Nations chief executive John Feehan recently ruled that out for now, but Italy's Irish coach knows that the best way to silence that talk would be to start winning more often and stop opponents from notching up big scores.
"There will always be discussion, but we have earned the right through our performances over the years to be where we are," said O'Shea, whose team upset former world champions South Africa for the first time in Florence in November.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt spoke up for O'Shea, reminding reporters that only four years ago the Azzurri beat the Irish.
"Rome was not built in a day and I think he will build something," Schmidt said.
"He has a great record of being able to build systems, a structure and a belief and a group that can be competitive."
(Editing by Toby Davis)